SALT LAKE CITY — How could so many cyclists cheat for so many years and not get caught?
Because doping was a widespread, orchestrated effort that for many of the sports' best athletes and medical professionals was an accepted, even necessary, part of competing.
"I think this really is the bottom of the whole thing," said Dr. Massimo "Max" Testa, one of the world's pre-eminent medical experts on cycling who has worked with several of the athletes caught up in the doping controversy, including Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie and the current chief medical officer for the BMC Cycling Team.
Testa said the banned substances were so prevalent it created a culture where cheating was seen as a necessary part of competition.
"In those years in which doping was very prevalent, and I would say not just in cycling, those were years in which there were products on the market that would improve performances and were not detectable. A kind of wrong culture developed. … The phenomenon was so widespread that you were just putting yourself on the same starting line as other people."
The sentiments of the Italian-born doctor who now calls Salt Lake City home were some of the same expressed by Rowland Hall graduate Levi Leipheimer, a two-time winner of the Tour of Utah and winner of the final stage of this year's 2012 race. Leipheimer was one of 26 athletes the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency relied on in investigating whether or not Armstrong used banned substances.
Leipheimer, like many of the athletes who testified before a grand jury, was suspended for six months from any sanctioned event and could be stripped of any title won during the time they admitted to using performance enhancing substances. Leipheimer's team, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, also suspended the 38-year-old on Thursday in the wake of the report. Leipheimer, who is one of the country's most accomplished cyclists, was "placed on non-active status" while the USADA report and Leipheimer's statements are reviewed by team officials.
In a statement released to The Wall Street Journal, Leipheimer said that while he regretted his decision to dope, he felt he had no choice but to do so.
"Today, I accept responsibility and USADA's sanctions for participating in the dirty past of cycling," said Leipheimer, who won a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympic time trial event — two years after he said he quit doping. "I've been racing clean for more than 5 years in a changed and much cleaner sport. I hope that my admission will help to make these changes permanent."
"Until recently — or maybe even until today — when people thought about doping, they thought about a guy, by himself, using banned substances to get ahead," he continued. "What people didn't realize — what I didn't realize until after I was already committed to this career — was that doping was organized and everywhere in the peloton. Doping wasn't the exception; it was the norm."
Leipheimer, who testified before a grand jury about his drug use, said in his affidavit that by 1999, he had come "to believe that in order to be successful in professional cycling, it was necessary to use performance enhancing drugs."
He detailed when he began using EPO (late 1999) and how doctors instructed and oversaw his efforts to use performance enhancing drugs. Leipheimer joined the U.S. Postal Service Team in 1999, where he became a teammate and friend of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong had just won the Tour de France. Leipheimer details using EPO even after he left the Postal Service Team. He also detailed how he found out about the team's blood doping efforts in 2005 from Floyd Landis, and how he began to use that method of enhancement as well as others.
He said there were efforts from other teams and riders to discover what methods of doping Armstrong was using, when in fact, Leipheimer said he was using the same methods as everyone else — EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions.
"In April of 2007 at the Tour of Georgia, I asked Johan Bruyneel whether the team was going to organize a blood doping program for the 2007 Tour de France," Leipheimer said in the affidavit. "Johan responded, 'You're a pro; you should do it on your own.' I told Johan, however, that it was too stressful and that without team assistance I would not be using blood at the 2007 Tour. Johan seemed upset by my response."
Leipheimer said he trained with Armstrong in 2008, 2009 and 2010. He said Armstrong asked him if there was "any talk of new performance enhancing drugs in the peleton. I responded that I had not done anything, and Lance said, 'if you had done something, I would know.' "
He enjoyed good relationships with his teammates and Armstrong until he was called to testify before a California grand jury in October 2010. He said he testified truthfully, and shortly thereafter he was treated coldly by Armstrong. He said his wife received a text from Armstrong that she perceived as a threat. It said, "Run, don't walk."
Leipheimer said he'd endured a great deal of animosity during the 2011 cycling season because of his testimony. He was dropped from the RadioShack team that he helped Armstrong start.
Testa said he knows Leipheimer and trusts his insight.
"People can make mistakes, good people," Testa said. "Cycling has been doing a lot of effort to improve and clean the sport. Now we need to give (the sport) to the new generation of cycling. … We have a lot of good cyclists racing in a different era where doping is not such an issue like it was 10 years ago."
He hopes the sport can heal, and points out that those athletes are already proving that success can be had without cheating.
"In any bad thing, you want to bring home something good," he said. "These are good people, good guys, good athletes, and I trust them. I believe them."
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